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Nutritional Management of Older HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · June 26, 2015

Old horses sometimes lose weight for inexplicable reasons, even if they appear to be in good health with robust appetites. Weight loss can be so gradual that owners notice it only after the horse becomes thin. At this point, reversing weight loss is much more difficult than if the condition is caught at an earlier stage. For this reason, owners of older horses should determine body weight with a scale or weight tape on a regular basis and make dietary adjustments as necessary.

A veterinary examination is a sound starting place when evaluating weight loss. Kentucky Equine Research nutritionist Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., says that if there are no major health problems, it may be helpful to switch the horse to a ration designed specifically for older horses. Senior feeds often are formulated with additional protein, vitamins, and minerals, and many are “complete” feeds that contain at least 12% crude fiber. They may be “predigested” or extruded to increase digestibility for the geriatric horse. A cup or two of vegetable oil may be added to the ration for extra calories. All feed changes should be done gradually.

Long-stem hay may still be offered so long as choke is not a problem. Hay cubes can be used as a forage source if the horse has difficulties chewing long-stem hay.

“Because alfalfa (lucerne) has high calcium content, the hay cubes should be made from grass hay or a combination of whole corn plants and alfalfa. Calcium intakes in excess of need result in high urinary calcium excretion that may lead to the formation of renal calculi (kidney stones) in otherwise clinically normal geriatric horses fed straight alfalfa,” says Crandell. “Hay cubes and pelleted or extruded geriatric feeds can be soaked in water to make a slurry if choke or impactions are a problem.”

For older horses with kidney or liver dysfunction, lower concentrations of protein (8-10%) and higher concentrations of carbohydrate should be fed. Grass hay (chopped or cubed), corn, or barley are the feeds of choice. Beet pulp may be used as a roughage source for horses with liver disease but should be avoided in horses with kidney disease due to its high calcium content. Vegetable oil may be used as an additional calorie source for horses with renal disease but not for horses with evidence of hepatic dysfunction due to the danger of hyperlipidemia. Digestive aids such as yeast cultures may be of benefit.

If chronic pain due to arthritis appears to be a contributing factor to weight loss, owners should consult with a veterinarian about the use of anti-inflammatory or glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate compounds.

Joint supplements designed by Kentucky Equine Research (KER), such as Synovate HA, can be used to provide structural components of joint cartilage, helping to manage joint health proactively by preventing the loss of hyaluronic acid. KER-Flex, also formulated by KER, contains glucosamine HCl and chondroitin sulfate in a palatable powdered formula to provide broad-spectrum support of joint health. The product is suitable for all classes of horses engaged in various types of exercise, helping to ease discomfort and minimize arthritic changes in joints as horses age. KER-Flex is available in the United States; horse owners in Australia should choose Glucos-A-Flex.

Nontraditional therapies such as acupuncture have also been effective in some cases. Confinement appears to exacerbate stiffness and pain, so horses should be turned out as much as possible.

In summary, just because a horse is old does not mean it has to be thin and in poor health. With proper attention to feed management, dentition, and joint care, many horses can maintain excellent body condition and health well past 30 years of age.